ILIGAN, Philippines – With funeral parlors overwhelmed, authorities in a flood-stricken southern Philippine city on Monday organized the first mass burial of some of nearly 700 people who were swept to their deaths in one of worst calamities to strike the region in decades.
For the first time in a day, the staggering death toll from Friday night's disaster, spawned by a tropical storm, remained little changed but the number of missing varied widely. Official figures put the missing at 82, while the Philippine Red Cross estimated 800.
The disparity underscores the difficulty in accounting for people who could be buried in the mud and debris littering much of the area or could be alive but lost in crowded evacuation centers or elsewhere.
"We lost count of how many are missing," said Benito Ramos, head of the government's Office of Civil Defense.
In Iligan, a coastal industrial hub of 330,000 people, Mayor Lawrence Cruz said the city's half a dozen parlors were full to capacity and no longer accepting bodies. The first burial of 50 or so unclaimed bodies was to take place later Monday in individual tombs at the city cemetery, he said.
"For public health purposes, we're doing this. The bodies are decomposing and there is no place where we can place them, not in an enclosed building, not in a gymnasium," Cruz told The Associated Press.
He said many of the Iligan dead -- 279 by official count -- "are just piled and laid outside the morgues," which ran out of formaldehyde for embalming and coffins.
"We're using plastic bags, whatever is available," Cruz said.
In nearby Cagayan de Oro city, the situation was more chaotic and people were resisting mass burials, instead demanding that bodies be interned until relatives can claim them.
About 340 died in Cagayan de Oro, most of them women and children and many of whom lived along river banks. Flood waters came gushing after 12 hours of pounding rain, catching most of them in their sleep.
Residents told local officials that plans for a mass burial was "un-Christian," said Cagayan de Oro city administrator Griscelda Joson.
Mayor Vicente Emano called a meeting later Monday to discuss the problem. Funeral parlors have asked authorities to do something about the unclaimed bodies because of the stench and complaints from neighbors, she said.
More bodies continue to be found. While city officials were meeting Sunday, more than 40 bodies were seen floating off an island but the coast guard could not recover them, Joson said.
In a grim sign of desperation, a funeral parlor dumped about 30 badly decomposed bodies in a city garbage dump over the weekend, sparking protests from distraught villagers who were looking for the missing loved ones.
Ramos, the head of the agency that is spearheading the recovery and relief operations, attributed the high casualties "partly to the complacency of people because they are not in the usual path of storms" despite warnings by officials that one was approaching.
"We've had flooding before but nothing like this," Cruz, the Iligan mayor said, recalling floods in the early 1950s. "We have a good drainage system but it as simply overwhelmed. The rainfall fell heavily on the mountains and this flowed down to two of our river systems and they overflowed and swept away houses and covered the highway and residential areas."
About 143,000 people were affected in 13 southern and central provinces, including 45,000 who fled to evacuation centers. About 7,000 houses were swept away, destroyed or damaged, the Office of Civil Defense said.
An estimated 35 percent of evacuees are children, said Trevor Clark, head of UNICEF in the southern Mindanao region. Running water and hygiene were major concerns, followed by a lack of clothing, blankets and even shoes for young children, he said.
Although he said government agencies were responding in a quick and efficient manner, they were overwhelmed and the United Nations was preparing an appeal for urgent assistance from donors and foreign governments.